Amos Alonzo Stagg: Football legend

December 14, 2012

Amos Alonzo Stagg did not invent football. But during his 41 years at the University of Chicago he developed much of the modern game.

Stagg was born in New Jersey in 1862. He began making his football headlines while a divinity student at Yale University. Playing end on the varsity squad, he was named to the very first All-American Team in 1889.

After graduating from Yale, Stagg wanted to remain connected with football. Coaching offered the best opportunity – there was no NFL in those days. So when the brand-new University of Chicago asked him to take charge of its athletic program, Stagg headed west.

The year was 1892. Stagg was given an ample budget and also faculty rank, something no full-time coach had ever had at any college. His title was Director of the Division of Physical Culture.

Though he never did become a minister, Stagg felt he could promote the Christian ethic through football. “The coaching profession is one of the noblest and most far-reaching in building manhood,” he once said. Of course, that didn’t mean he had to field a losing team.

And Stagg’s teams were winners. The University of Chicago Maroons won seven Big Ten championships between 1899 and 1924. The undefeated 1905 and 1913 teams were ranked #1 in the nation.

Stagg was an innovator. He invented the huddle, the direct pass from center, the lateral, the man-in-motion, the backfield shift, and cross-blocking. Wanting his players to develop stamina along with strength, he introduced wind sprints. He was also the first to put numbers on uniforms. “All football comes from Stagg,” Knute Rockne declared.

But at the university, football wasn’t Stagg’s only responsibility. He ran the entire athletic program. At different times he coached baseball, basketball, track, and swimming. Oh–and while he was at it, he also invented the batting cage.

Stagg led a sedate life. He didn’t smoke or drink, went to church, raised a family, and stayed married to the same woman. That didn’t mean he shied away from publicity, or that he wouldn’t express his opinions. Stagg didn’t like college fraternities. He also thought that pro football was a “menace” to amateur athletics.

In 1929 Robert Maynard Hutchins became UofC president. His vision of a university didn’t include high-powered football teams. When Stagg turned 70 in 1932, Hutchins forced him to retire.

The Grand Old Man of Football wouldn’t go quietly. Stagg told the press he was leaving the university against his will. Moving to California, he signed on as head coach at College of the Pacific, and had several more successful seasons.

In 1946, at 84, Stagg retired from the Pacific job. He had 314 wins to his credit, the most for any football coach. Still refusing to obey the calendar, he then went to work for his son, as an assistant coach.

He celebrated his 100th birthday in 1962. Asked by a reporter about his future plans, Stagg retained his upbeat optimism and sense of humor. “I may go on forever," he quipped. "Statistics say that very few men die after the age of 100.”

He almost made 103, dying in the spring of 1965. Today he is memorialized in two high schools and a number of athletic fields — including Stagg Field at the UofC.